It’s been more than 80 years, but Dollie McKenzie still remembers her first piano lessons.
It was about 1933, and an 8-year-old McKenzie would trek — usually by herself — each week to her piano teacher’s Ucon home, more than a mile down the road.
“We didn’t have a car, so I’d walk — winter and summer,” McKenzie said. “In the wintertime, it was pretty cold. (My teacher) would have me warm up my hands in warm water so I could play. She was very kind and loving.”
Since then, McKenzie has come a long way. Now 90, she’s conducted, accompanied, sang and performed piano and organ at hundreds — if not thousands — of local concerts, musicals, weddings, funerals, festivals and gatherings. She’s taught hundreds of students over the years and is the oldest performing member of the longstanding Idaho Falls Music Club.
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In February, McKenzie chose to celebrate the start of her next decade of life fittingly — with a public music program featuring a performance from McKenzie herself along with her daughter, Rexburg-based musician Beverly Solomon, and her granddaughter, Jenny Solomon.
“There’s a song I used to sing (with local women’s chorale group Idaho Falls Choralaires) called ‘Let All My Life Be Music,’ and that’s what I’ve been,” McKenzie said. “My whole life has been music.”
Technically, music first entered McKenzie’s life at age 8. But she said age 15 was the point at which she finally “took hold” of the art form. It was also in those later teen years, she said she started teaching piano.
After high school, she bought her first upright piano with cash, for about $300. McKenzie attended Ricks College and studied music education. At Ricks, she took piano and organ lessons under a renowned local music instructor named Ruth Barrus.
McKenzie’s professional career took off after college. In 1946, she took a music teaching position in Burley public schools. She also joined the music club and served in numerous positions over the years including president, and chairs of several committees. She said she was even chosen by the club as Music Woman of the Year in the 1940s.
“She’s one of the most talented, musical people I’ve ever met,” said Bonita Higley, McKenzie’s longtime friend and fellow member of the Idaho Falls Music Club. “She could play the piano like nobody else could. We just became really good friends and I respected her so much.”
“Dollie is a very dedicated person to music,” added music club member Elaine Jensen. “She is a very, very tremendous lady in music — a very fine musician.”
McKenzie stopped teaching at age 70, though she continues playing locally. She was the driving force behind getting a sing-along started at her current residence, MorningStar Senior Living of Idaho Falls, where she lives with her husband, Dan.
“When we moved here in 2009, about the only activity for old folks was bingo,” McKenzie said. “I said, ‘There’s more to life than bingo.’ So I started the sing-along and it’s one of the most popular things here, now … it gets people involved, gets them thinking and using their faculties. Compared with doing bingo, it’s just an important thing in their life.”
McKenzie said she lives by several different mottos — among them, a quote by Jim Elliot: “When the time comes to die, make sure that’s all you have to do.” And McKenzie said she has a lot left to do. On that list is continuing to fill her life with music — McKenzie still plays every day.
“Of course there are people who don’t have a lot of music in their life, and I guess the only reason why is they’ve never been exposed to it,” McKenzie said. “Of course not everyone’s going to be a musician. But I do think it’s been very important for me. I think it’s just been an (activity that’s helped) round me out, and (given me) purpose.”